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5 years on from GDPR’s introduction, what does acceptable targeting mean in marketing?
May 25, 2023
By Nikky Hudson, head of product - data and programmatic services, Nano Interactive
From location in the age of Roe v. Wade, to gender and protected age groups, Nikky Hudson asks: are the ethics of people-based targeting experiencing a shift?
It’s by now quite a cliché to say that the ad industry moves at a frenetic pace. But in the case of online privacy so far in 2023, that seems to be an understatement.
Major fines, new privacy rulings – some for the first time even covering first party data – and the US president (no less) speaking out against people-based targeting. All in all, it really does feel like the definition of what is now acceptable practice is shifting – both on a personal and professional level.
Unless it’s your day job to keep on top of this stuff, you’d absolutely be forgiven for not doing so, given the sheer volume. And perhaps that also explains why, in some cases, the tech giants - even, whisper it, Meta - are even starting to push ahead of brands and agencies to redefine the etiquette of people-based targeting.
In this article, my aim is to summarize some of the elements at play here in one easy place. Easier said than done.
Location, location, location
On the scale of acceptable targeting right now, location is right at the bottom of the list.
Exhibit A: With the introduction of GDPR, place-based ad tech went curiously quiet. If memory serves me, several firms even shut down EU operations completely as legislation approached.
Exhibit B: Following on from that, you don’t hear that much about location targeting anymore in Europe. Except perhaps that Google is especially hot on shutting down all trace of it, removing IP address tracking from Google Analytics, and even including built-in VPNs with the latest version of its smartphone.
“It shows us how powerful this data is in scary ways”
Then, of course, you have location-shaped elephant in the room: the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, meaning that women in certain states may be prosecuted for seeking an abortion. In truth though, the issue goes well beyond location. The above quote comes from Anya Prince, a law professor at the University of Iowa, in reference to reporting from ProPublica on how online purchasing of abortion pills is being weaponized. Third-party, people-based data is shared between sellers and Google, which in turn may be used as evidence by law enforcement in possession of a warrant or court order.
The same report also confirms that buying such pills online has already been used “as evidence in cases charging people with illegal abortions in several states.” Though it is unclear exactly where the data is being sourced from in such cases, the ‘platform-wide’ nature of profiling and third-party data in general might suggest law enforcement has more than a few options there.
Gender targeting and the 13%
In the face of such a frankly alarming example, it’s hard not to agree with privacy campaigners when they label profiling as surveillance capitalism. But the dark side of audience targeting can also appear in more subtle ways, that have been all around for a while already.
As we’ve argued before, gender targeting should be high on agency and brands’ lists to wind up completely. While its misuse is at least in theory not a given, how else would you explain the following Kantar data that, "Almost all (99%) of UK ads for laundry products are targeted at women, while 70% of ads for toiletries and food products are aimed at women."
Meanwhile, the same research also shows that 87% of men consider themselves a ‘main buyer’ for such products. Could this imbalance possibly relate to the fact it’s the other 13% making the decisions here?
All of which does not even begin to mention deeper-rooted issues. Beyond doubts around making incorrect audience assumptions, there are questions around how accurately third-party data classifies gender. And even beyond that, we might quite reasonably ask whether the binary split that underpins the logic of gender targeting itself is hopelessly out of date.
Much like Google on the IP address-targeting front, it’s interesting to see that Meta is, at least in some respects, ahead of the rest of the industry on this one. Earlier this year, it announced it would remove gender targeting for teenage users on Facebook and Instagram. Will others from the wider industry choose to follow its lead? And will those who don’t run the risk of being left behind?
It’s hard to believe that all the above-mentioned events – fines, rulings, targeting restrictions – all occurred in one year. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking the cliché that we work in the fastest moving industry had finally come true. Not to forget this was the time US president Joe Biden also said: “We should limit targeted advertising and ban it altogether for children.”
Will we look back, years from now and say this was the moment the sands of what is acceptable targeting truly shifted?